Nidal al-Mughrabi / Reuters – 2006-07-27 00:51:58
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GAZA (July 26, 2006) — Israeli forces killed 16 Palestinians in fighting across the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, including at least nine militants, a three-year-old girl and a handicapped man, medics and witnesses said.
Israel has stepped up air strikes and launched raids into Gaza to stop rocket attacks and recover a soldier captured by militants on June 25. The army has killed 137 Palestinians since it began its assault. About half were civilians.
Wednesday’s death toll in Gaza was the highest in two weeks. Among those killed were seven loyalists of the governing Hamas militant group and one gunman from the kindred Islamic Jihad faction, which is also dedicated to destroying Israel.
Another gunman was killed later, but it was not clear which group he was from.
Medics said a three-year-old and six others were killed, including a handicapped man. At least 50 people were wounded, including a cameraman for Palestinian television. Six of the wounded were in a critical condition, medics said.
Israeli troops have pursued the offensive in Gaza while fighting on a second front in Lebanon following the capture of two soldiers by Hizbollah guerrillas in a July 12 raid, but have failed to stop rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.
Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called on the world to remember the plight of the Palestinians despite the conflict in Lebanon.
“This is the forgotten war,” he told Reuters. “We urge the international community to intervene.”
Israel’s army, which abandoned Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation, said it had carried out strikes against gunmen.
Clashes with Hamas
At least 30 tanks and other armored vehicles pushed more than 2 km (1.2 miles) into the northern Gaza Strip overnight. The troops clashed with militants on the edge of Jabalya, a stronghold of Hamas, through the day.
Buzzing overhead, unmanned drone aircraft fired missiles at militants on the streets, Palestinian witnesses said.
Israel also bombed offices used by a Hamas-led force in Gaza City on Wednesday. The army has destroyed several offices of the Hamas-led Palestinian government, which accuses Israel of trying to bring down its elected administration.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected demands by militants to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, but said he might consider it later to help Abbas, a moderate.
“If I release prisoners in the future, it would only occur through talks with (Abbas) in order to strengthen him in the eyes of the Palestinians. But time is not yet ripe to release prisoners,” YNET News quoted Olmert as saying.
The offensive has put pressure on Hamas, which was already struggling under a crippling U.S.-led aid embargo, designed to pressure the group to recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence and accept past peace deals.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Olmert seemed to be signaling a softening of opposition to a prisoner exchange.
“Olmert’s comments represented a beginning of a retreat in the Israeli position,” he told Reuters. “The Hamas position is clear. There must be a reciprocity of time and action in the release process, meaning the soldier gets freed and Palestinian prisoners go free at the same time.”
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